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Visualizing the Invisible with the My Air, My Health Challenge Winners

2013 June 14

By Dustin Renwick

My Air, My Health BannerWhen you win an award, it’s easy to lose sight of the small victories that brought you to a successful finish.

Members of the Conscious Clothing team – winner of the EPA/HHS My Air, My Health Challenge – almost didn’t apply for the challenge.

A friend told team leader Gabrielle Dockterman about the InnoCentive website, a crowdsourcing and open innovation platform. Dockterman said she felt there might be a challenge that would tap into the talents of people she knew. She emailed her friend Dot Kelly, a chemist, and inventor David Kuller, her boss from a previous job.

They stumbled on the My Air, My Health Challenge eight days before the deadline for proposals.

Kuller says that fortunately, all three team members were between projects and at stages in their lives when they could commit to the opportunity.

Eight days later, they submitted their entry just before midnight.

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Savage

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Dockterman

Using Skype to stay connected across the country and the world, the team explored options for building a prototype that could account for both air pollution and related health metrics, such heart rate or breathing.

On top of that, they had to create a system that could be easily worn or carried.

“It was like being a little kid with Legos,” Kuller said.

The team’s design incorporates an open-source Arduino platform microcomputer that lies against the chest and a particulate matter air sensor that hangs near the neck. The system takes advantage of the common place where men and women typically wear ties, necklaces or other fashion accessories.

Stretchy strips of silver-knitted yarn wrap around the wearer’s ribcage to measure breathing. The integrated system gives wearers an estimate of their pollution exposure by comparing the air quality to how deeply the person breathes.

The data are streamed to any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a cellphone, and LED lights transform the sensor measurements into visual cues, what the team calls “making the invisible visible.”

Dockterman says the group will next focus on tailoring prototypes for several different applications: consumer athletics, sleep apnea research and children’s asthma research.

Built in large batches, the Conscious Clothing sensor system could cost as little as $20 and could be sewn directly into clothing. The design represents the continuing shift to next-generation sensors that cost less, are easier to use, and can be applied to many different fields.

“I’d like to think we’re going to bridge what could have been a 20-year development gap,” Kelly said.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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